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Hermann and Dorothea   By: (1749-1832)

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By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translated by Ellen Frothingham


There are few modern poems of any country so perfect in their kind as the "Hermann and Dorothea" of Goethe. In clearness of characterization, in unity of tone, in the adjustment of background and foreground, in the conduct of the narrative, it conforms admirably to the strict canons of art; yet it preserves a freshness and spontaneity in its emotional appeal that are rare in works of so classical a perfection in form.

The basis of the poem is a historical incident. In the year 1731 the Archbishop of Salzburg drove out of his diocese a thousand Protestants, who took refuge in South Germany, and among whom was a girl who became the bride of the son of a rich burgher. The occasion of the girl's exile was changed by Goethe to more recent times, and in the poem she is represented as a German from the west bank of the Rhine fleeing from the turmoil caused by the French Revolution. The political element is not a mere background, but is woven into the plot with consummate skill, being used, at one point, for example, in the characterization of Dorothea, who before the time of her appearance in the poem has been deprived of her first betrothed by the guillotine; and, at another, in furnishing a telling contrast between the revolutionary uproar in France and the settled peace of the German village.

The characters of the father and the minister Goethe took over from the original incident, the mother he invented, and the apothecary he made to stand for a group of friends. But all of these persons, as well as the two lovers, are recreated, and this so skillfully that while they are made notably familiar to us as individuals, they are no less significant as permanent types of human nature. The hexameter measure which he employed, and which is retained in the present translation, he handled with such charm that it has since seemed the natural verse for the domestic idyl witness the obvious imitation of this, as of other features of the poem, in Longfellow's "Evangeline."

Taken as a whole, with its beauty of form, its sentiment, tender yet restrained, and the compelling pathos of its story, "Hermann and Dorothea" appeals to a wider public than perhaps any other product of its author.




"Truly, I never have seen the market and street so deserted! How as if it were swept looks the town, or had perished! Not fifty Are there, methinks, of all our inhabitants in it remaining, What will not curiosity do! here is every one running, Hurrying to gaze on the sad procession of pitiful exiles. Fully a league it must be to the causeway they have to pass over, Yet all are hurrying down in the dusty heat of the noonday. I, in good sooth, would not stir from my place to witness the sorrows Borne by good, fugitive people, who now, with their rescued possessions, Driven, alas! from beyond the Rhine, their beautiful country, Over to us are coming, and through the prosperous corner Roam of this our luxuriant valley, and traverse its windings. Well hast thou done, good wife, our son in thus kindly dispatching, Laden with something to eat and to drink, and with store of old linen, 'Mongst the poor folk to distribute; for giving belongs to the wealthy. How the youth drives, to be sure! What control he has over the horses! Makes not our carriage a handsome appearance, the new one? With comfort, Four could be seated within, with a place on the box for the coachman. This time, he drove by himself. How lightly it rolled round the corner!" Thus, as he sat at his ease in the porch of his house on the market, Unto his wife was speaking mine host of the Golden Lion.

Thereupon answered and said the prudent, intelligent housewife: "Father, I am not inclined to be giving away my old linen: Since it serves many a purpose; and cannot be purchased for money, When we may want it. To day, however, I gave, and with pleasure, Many a piece that was better, indeed, in shirts and in bed clothes; For I was told of the aged and children who had to go naked... Continue reading book >>

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